Project Canterbury

Marriage and Birth Control

By the Rt. Rev. M. B. Furse, D.D.
Bishop of St. Albans

Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1931.

THE Editor has given his reasons for voting in favor of Resolution 15 of the Lambeth Conference. He has asked me to state the case for the minority of bishops who voted against it, but I can only speak for myself. I voted against this Resolution for one main reason, and for several other subsidiary ones. Contraception "Unnatural"

My main reason was because I was and am convinced that the use of all contraceptives is against the Law of God, and is therefore in the truest sense "unnatural." And why do I believe this?

First and foremost, because I have a strong instinctive feeling that the whole thing is repellent, degrading, and wrong. I shall no doubt be told that this feeling is merely a personal matter of taste, or perhaps mere prejudice or prudery on my part: certainly not a strong enough argument to condemn the practice of a large number of good Christian people.

But I find that this intuition is not a peculiarity of a few cranks, or mere rigorists or conservatives, but is shared with me by quite a number of other people of all kinds. More than that, I find it corresponds with the common consciousness of religious folk--Jewish, Christian, and even Mohammedan--all down the ages; and if it is urged that this "strong tradition of the Catholic Church" "is not founded on any directions given in the New Testament, nor has behind it the authority of any Ecumenical Council" my answer is, "The same can be said of suicide": and why? Simply because it was taken for granted to be a sin against God's Law.

But can this instinctive feeling be justified on rational grounds? Justified, yes; but not proved, for I believe no moral judgment can be proved right or wrong merely by pure reason. To me the rational justification for this instinctive feeling that all contraceptives are wrong can be summed up in the words: "That which God hath joined together let no man put asunder."

Marriage is a "Holy Estate," "part of God's plan for mankind." It is one indissoluble whole, the lifelong union of two personalities. For the purposes of analysis it is possible to divide "the whole" into its "component parts"; so marriage can be divided, as the Prayer Book suggests, into three parts: first, procreation; secondly, the sexual act necessary to procreation together with the natural satisfaction which it brings; and, thirdly, "the mutual society, help, and comfort which the one ought to have of the other"--that is to say, the love which unites the two personalities. But the parts cannot be separated from the whole without destroying the completeness of the whole; and, further, a part is only what it is in relation to the whole of which it is a part; when, therefore, a part is separated from the whole (e.g., a leg amputated from the body), the part so separated ceases to be itself in any true sense.

So it is in marriage. Sexual intercourse can, through contraceptives, be separated from procreation, though procreation cannot be separated from sexual intercourse; but it is quite possible for a husband and wife to have sexual intercourse (whether resulting in procreation or not) without any real love existing between them. Under these circumstances the third part of marriage is separated from the second; when this happens, any Christian would admit that such action would be wrong, as it cuts out the fundamental basis of Christian marriage--love--and destroys "the whole."

Why, then, should it be thought to be legitimate deliberately to separate the sexual act (and the natural satisfaction that it brings) from its biological end? Such separation of one part from the whole, I submit, not only destroys "the whole," but robs "the part" itself of what it really is by taking it out of its right relation to the whole.

Or, put it in another way. In order to justify the use of contraceptives, Christian advocates of the practice strongly emphasize the "sacramental" nature of the marriage act, by which they mean that it is not only an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual love and union between husband and wife, but actually, by expressing that love, increases it and makes it more real. With this, of course, all Christians must agree. But when the marriage act is spoken of as a "sacramental union" or "a natural sacrament," what sort of sexual intercourse is meant? That arranged by nature or by man? "The real" or "The artificial"? There is only one "real" or "natural" form of sexual intercourse, namely, that which (if God wills) can result in procreation. But sexual intercourse with contraceptives is admittedly incomplete. The sexual act under these conditions is not the act arranged by nature for the biological end of such intercourse. It is not, therefore, I maintain, in the true sense the second part of marriage, while from the point of view of the marriage act as a "natural sacrament" it is not using the proper "outward" means, and presumably, therefore, it must fail, in some real way, to express and make real and increase the "inward" part of the "sacrament"--that is to say, the mutual love of husband and wife.

Sexual intercourse with the use of contraceptives is therefore, I submit, in a perfectly true sense "unnatural," as being against God's plan, and cuts at the very root of the Christian idea of marriage as one indissoluble whole.

Contraception Unphysiological

It is also, I believe, unphysiological. I frankly admit medical opinion is greatly divided as to the hygenic effects of the use of contraceptives, but the fact that there is a very considerable body of medical opinion against the practice on physiological grounds cannot be ignored.

"The practice of contraception, or birth prevention," writes Dr. Sutherland, an eminent gynaecologist,1 "is unnatural in terms of ethics and unphysiological in terms of biology, because, apart from preventing pregnancy, it inhibits far-reaching physiological processes which result from normal intercourse, by reason of the absorption of certain vital substances having a beneficial influence on the metabolism and health of the female. ... It is therefore not surprising that the majority of gynaecologists have reached the conclusion, from clinical observation, that contraception is a cause of sterility, of neurasthenia, and of fibroid tumors in women. So far from being beneficial, contraception is positively harmful to women."

Or again, Professor M. S. Pembrey, M.D., F.R.S., professor of Physiology at Guy's Hospital (University of London), states: "The modern crusade of 'birth control' is not based on biological principles." Dr. F. J. McCann, M.D., F.R.C.S., senior surgeon to the Samaritan Hospital for Women, says: "To think that contraception may be continually practised with impunity is to ignore and stultify all knowledge of the human body. . . . All methods in common use are injurious to the woman." While Dr. R. A. Gibbons, another eminent gynaecologist, says: "In regard to contraceptives, nature is implacable." This we all know is true--you cannot fool Nature with impunity. She has an unpleasant way of getting her own back on you; for that which God hath joined together no man (however scientific or casuistic) can with impunity put asunder.

This, then, was my main reason for voting against Resolution 15, because it approves, under certain conditions (which I will deal with later), methods of limiting and avoiding parenthood other than complete abstinence from sexual intercourse.

Reasons Alleged for Breaking with Christian Tradition

The 193 bishops who voted for it quite definitely set aside, in the words of the Committee's Report (p. 90), a "very strong tradition in the Catholic Church that the use of preventive methods is in all cases unlawful for a Christian"--admittedly a serious step to take. Why did they take it?

I have already dealt with one reason advanced in the Committee's Report, namely, the fact that this strong tradition is not founded on any directions in the New Testament, nor has behind it the authority of any Ecumenical Council of the Church. But on the same page we read: "If our Communion is to give guidance on this problem it must speak frankly and openly, with a full appreciation of facts and conditions which were not present in the past, but which are due to modern civilization."

What, then, are these new facts and conditions? Neither in the report of the Committee nor in any of the resolutions passed by the Conference are we told what they are. "The troubled consciences" (and why "troubled"?), for whose peace of mind this part of the Report was drawn up and Resolution 15 passed, are left to find out for themselves what "these new facts and conditions" are.

They are not social or economic; they are not to be found in the possible increase of selfishness on the part of society generally, nor in the growing laxity with regard to sexual morality, which is fully recognized by the Committee; for all these "facts and conditions" are ruled out as not being "morally sound reasons" for the use of contraceptives.

What, then, are these new facts and conditions? The emancipation of women? The twentieth century is surely not the first to be aware of the suffering of many wives or the bestial brutality of uncontrolled lust on the part of some husbands, nor, indeed, of the tremendous difficulty for many--whether married or unmarried--of sexual continence.

What, then, are these facts and conditions due to modern civilization?

The editor of Theology comes to the rescue; he tells us that presumably they are three:

"(I) The advance in knowledge, especially of psychology;

"(2) The change of medical opinion since the Lambeth Conference of 1920; and

"(3) Representations made to the bishops by confessors and others of strongly Catholic proclivities who have found the resolutions of 1920 too narrow a basis on which to give guidance to the faithful."

Bishop Gore has dealt with these "three new facts and conditions" so thoroughly in his last pamphlet on this subject, and my space is so limited that I would refer my readers to what he says there. His answers seem to me conclusive. But there are two other new facts and conditions, not mentioned by the editor of Theology, which those who drew up the Report may have had in mind: the invention of new, and, as it is alleged, improved, methods of contraception, and their widespread use now by quite respectable people, whereas formerly they were only used in illicit intercourse by prostitutes and their male partners in vice.

Are Contraceptives a Gift of God?

I am well aware that there are people who look upon the modern contraceptive (like anaesthetics) as a gift of God to man through science, and therefore to be used with thankfulness for "the enriching" of "the natural sacrament of marriage." Given certain conditions--the use of this "gift of God through science" is, they maintain, a duty for Christians, because with contraceptives at hand, reliance on the Holy Spirit to give a Christian man or woman the power of self-control and continence would be "presumptuous," because it is "presumptuous (and wrong) to rely on special gifts of grace to secure that which we can secure by natural means. . . ."

I heard the same sort of view advanced by one or two bishops at the Lambeth Conference. Indeed, the Report of the Committee, after affirming that "abstinence (from sexual intercourse) brings with it, to those who claim and receive Divine Grace, the opportunity for the highest exercise of Christian love and self-denial," proceeds to say, "yet there exist moral situations which may make it obligatory to use other methods" 2 (the italics are mine), or, in plain English, there may be situations in which a Christian is morally bound to use contraceptives.

But can contraceptives be "gifts of God" through science, as we believe anaesthetics are? Does the analogy really hold good? I believe not. I believe it to be a radically false analogy, and therefore entirely misleading and mischievous, and for this reason: the purpose of anaesthetics is not to frustrate, but to assist Nature in Nature's own work of healing and restoring. Any medical man will endorse this. Any other use of an anaesthetic is illegitimate and illegal. But the obvious and only known use of contraceptives is to frustrate the complete natural processes and the biological end of sexual intercourse, as designed by Nature, or, as I prefer to say, by God.

Now, if the majority of the bishops at Lambeth had held the view that contraceptives are a gift of God they would presumably have spoken "frankly and openly," and given quite clear, definite, and concise guidance to these "troubled consciences," and told them that they need have no scruples at all about using contraceptives; indeed (given certain conditions), they ought to use them, for they are God's gifts, to enable them to avoid the biological end of sexual intercourse: always, of course, being guided by Christian principles (which the Report tells us are axiomatic), and only, of course, "where there is a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood." If this had been the pronouncement of the Lambeth Conference I should, of course, have voted against it; but I, with others, would at least have known what the bishops believed and meant. But apparently the majority of bishops at Lambeth did not take the view that contraceptives are a gift from God--or did they?--or, in the end, were they not really quite sure about it? For when we come to examine Resolution 15 it is extraordinarily difficult to understand what view the majority of the bishops really did take.

What does the Resolution mean?

That Resolution begins thus, "Where there is a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles." These Christian principles, the Report tells us, are "axiomatic," and the 193 seemed to agree; but are they? Will they be quite so "axiomatic" and obvious to those "troubled consciences" whom it is desired to guide?

It then goes on to lay it down that "the primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control in the power of the Holy Spirit."

As to the meaning of the word "obvious" there can be no doubt. Sexual intercourse is the only way known to man by which procreation is possible, so if you do not have sexual intercourse obviously you cannot have a baby. But what precisely does "primary" mean? Presumably what it says. If one method is the primary method, any other must necessarily be, at the best, "secondary," and when this word is used in connection with a moral question it is not unreasonable to assume that the people who use it really mean that morally this "primary" method is the highest or the best. The Archbishop of Canterbury evidently interprets the word "primary" in this sense, for recently, in addressing the Lower House of Convocation of Canterbury on this subject, he spoke of this method as the "nobler," and Mr. Will Spens objects!

In the opinion, then, of the 193 bishops who voted for this Resolution the highest and best method for Christian people is apparently that of complete abstinence from sexual intercourse; and the way for Christians to carry out this method is not merely by their own power of will, but through self-control in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, believing, obviously, with the compilers of the Committee's Report, that "the strength of the Holy Spirit" is sufficient for all "human needs," and "all" must include this particular and, to many, very grave need of power to practise continence in married life. In other words, what the 193 bishops, on the face of it, believed, when they voted for Resolution 15, was that this "primary method" of complete abstinence is absolutely possible for any Christian husband or wife, provided they will give themselves to our Lord and take Him as "the Way, the Truth, and the Life," and depend upon Him, through His appointed means of prayer and sacrament, for that grace and power, through the Holy Spirit, which they will need.

So far so good. The first part of the Resolution would seem to follow "the strong tradition of the Catholic Church." It also incidentally bears witness to the Christian belief that there can be no "hard cases" too hard for the Holy Spirit to cope with, provided always that those involved in these "hard cases" surrender themselves to our Blessed Lord in heart and mind and will and body, and faithfully use the means of grace given by Him. But in spite of what they have already said about the primary and obvious method, and the power of the Holy Spirit, the 193 bishops continue--"nevertheless, in these cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence (the italics are mine), the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles" (unspecified, because taken for granted as "axiomatic"). The Resolution then ends with "strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception-control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience."

Can Complete Abstinence be Morally Wrong?

So, apparently, these 193 bishops believe (i) that morally sound reasons can be found for avoiding complete abstinence from sexual intercourse, and (2) that given certain conditions "secondary" or "lower" methods of limiting or avoiding parenthood are quite legitimate for Christians to adopt, and they can therefore adopt them with complete peace of mind, as they are quite compatible with "Christian principles."

Again I would point out--for the sake of "these troubled consciences," as indeed for the confessors and others for whom the editor of Theology speaks--that neither in the Committee's Report nor in the Resolution is any guidance given as to what are or what are not "morally sound reasons for avoiding complete abstinence." We are still left in the dark in spite of the expressed intention of the Committee "to speak frankly and openly," and even the editor of Theology does not enlighten us upon this point. Personally, I am not surprised, simply because I do not believe, from the Christian point of view, that there can ever be a sound moral reason for avoiding complete abstinence from sexual intercourse, or that complete abstinence can ever be morally wrong for married couples who do not desire to have children. I am well aware--and have been since I was a boy at school --that in the opinion of some medical men, but by no means the majority, such abstinence from sexual intercourse is in some cases detrimental to health, and is the cause of neurotic and other troubles. This may no doubt be partially true in some cases: my own belief, shared with many of the medical profession, is that the number of such cases is grossly exaggerated, and that where it is true it is only partially true, in that abstinence from sexual intercourse is only one of several contributory causes. However, granted, for the sake of argument, that complete abstinence from sexual intercourse may involve such a strain as to be detrimental to physical or mental health, is this a "moral reason"? The Christian sometimes finds himself in situations where, for the sake of higher ends, and in pursuit of the Christian ideal, he has deliberately to follow a course of action which, in the opinion of his medical adviser, is bound to be detrimental to health, or can indeed only be taken at the risk even of losing his life. To me this is one of those situations.

But what about the health of the husband or wife whose partner is a complete invalid, physically or mentally? Contraceptives are no help because any sexual intercourse is out of the question. What advice will the 193 bishops give to people in those circumstances?

Or again, what about the unmarried, who are convinced that their health is suffering from complete abstinence from sexual intercourse? Supposing it is so, what advice will the 193 bishops give to such people? The only possible advice they can give is that they must at all costs exercise self-control, relying upon the power of the Holy Spirit, "whose strength is sufficient for all human needs," and, if necessary, suffer in health (which I do not believe they will do).

And the mocker will quote the Report (p. 92): "In all these matters of sex, self-deception is all too easy. Let none forget that in this, as in all relationships of life, Christ calls to a heroism to which, by His power, His servants can attain"--and will then add in his own words, "but sometimes only by using contraceptives"; or he will say, as in effect he has already said: "The Lambeth Conference believes that the use of contraceptives is all right given certain conditions (more or less unspecified), but where contraceptives are no good, then fall back on the Holy Spirit." And who can deny that the mocker has some cause for his mocking?

But I may be told it is not a question of an individual's own health, it is a question of the health of his or her partner in marriage. A situation might arise where the husband is told by his medical adviser (i) that his wife must for health reasons avoid conception, and (2) that his or her health is suffering from avoidance of sexual intercourse. They are thus confronted with a moral situation. What ought he (or she) to do? I have myself known such cases. I can imagine few more difficult moral situations with which any man or woman could be confronted. What advice should I give under these circumstances? If they were practising Christians, I should tell them what I should do myself if I were in their shoes--and why I should do it. I should refuse to have anything to do with contraceptives, and for three reasons: First, because I believe them contrary to the law of God, and therefore not in accordance with His Will; secondly, because my experience tells me that no good ever results from doing evil that good may come; and, thirdly, because as Christians we are called to live our natural lives in a supernatural way, by faith, through cooperation with and dependence upon that supernatural power which is always at our disposal if we really want it. But by faith I mean, not merely holding an intellectual opinion, but making an assumption on which we act; in this case acting as if God could and would see them through without recourse to contraceptives. Finally, I should tell them that as far as my own experience went, God can and will and does--on these conditions--see us through every possible difficulty in life.

I do not myself therefore believe that these circumstances, difficult as they are, constitute a moral reason for using contraceptives; but if the bishops who voted for this Resolution believed that such conditions do so, why did they not tell us "frankly and openly" that these circumstances afford the only possible plea by which it would be legitimate for a Christian to use contraceptives?

As I see it, it simply comes to this. Is the Holy Spirit's strength strong enough to meet all human needs, or is it not? If it is, then why agree to the use of contraceptives under any conditions? If it is retorted: "Because they are the gift of God," then my answer is, Why not tell "the faithful in Christ Jesus" that those who use contraceptives are just as void of offense before God as those who prefer to use the method of complete abstinence through self-control, in reliance upon the Holy Spirit?

Are "Second Bests" Legitimate for Christians?

But the 193 bishops adopted neither of these courses. All they did was to talk about "the primary and obvious method" and then agree under certain conditions to another or secondary method. It will be said, no doubt, the 193 bishops quite definitely (?) make it clear by the use of the word "primary" that they consider the use of contraceptives "a second best." Perhaps, after all, that is what they really meant, but I should still vote against the Resolution on the ground that, as bishops, we have absolutely nothing to do with "second bests," because our Master quite clearly never had anything to do with second bests. "Second bests" may be good enough for "the world," but it was not "the world" we, as bishops, were addressing. We were addressing "the faithful in Christ Jesus," men and women, young and old, who have accepted our Lord not only as the Way to follow and not only as the revealer of the Truth to know and believe, but as the Life and Power in whom alone life can be lived in His Way.

As bishops, of course, we are also concerned with "the world," i.e., with those who do not accept our Lord as we do; but in what way? Our duty, I believe, to the world is to bear witness to our Faith and to present Christ as "the Way, the Truth, and the Life," and to do our best to persuade the world to accept Him as such. Our duty is to set before all men Christ's standard of living in every relationship of life, but when we do so to make it clear that we do not believe that standard of living is ever possible, for men even to go on trying to attain, apart from the Christian religion--that is to say, apart from personal surrender to our Lord and complete dependence upon Him, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The trouble is--especially in so-called Christian countries--we are constantly in danger of imagining that we can divorce that which God has joined together; that Christian morality can be divorced from Christian religion, and when we find that it does not work, the next thing we do--probably quite unconsciously--is either to water down the Christian way to the level of the world's way of living, or to set up two standards, "the best" and "the second best." But the Christian cannot be content with any "second bests," for our Master has bidden us "to be perfect even as our Heavenly Father is perfect."

I cannot help thinking--as I said at the time--that had the 193 bishops at Lambeth remembered sufficiently whom they were addressing--"the faithful in Christ Jesus," and nobody else--the majority of them would never have accepted the last half of Resolution 15.

But I had a further reason for voting against this Resolution. In agreeing, even under certain conditions, to the use of contraceptives, the 193 bishops have implicitly prejudged a medical question upon which the medical profession is still divided, namely, whether the use of contraceptives is or is not detrimental to health. The General Medical Council of Great Britain has never yet gone so far as to make a pronouncement on this point, presumably because they do not consider the evidence at their disposal sufficient; but the 193 bishops have taken it upon themselves to do so. This seems to be unwarrantably presumptuous on the part of any body of "laymen."

Of course I voted against this Resolution not only because I believe that sexual intercourse with the deliberate intention of frustrating the biological end of such intercourse, whether by the use of contraceptives or by any other method, is against the law of Nature (that is to say, of God), but because I believe that no resolution on such a vital question, which is so ambiguous in its meaning, so clamant for misinterpretation, and so presumptuous in its assumptions, should ever have been allowed to go out from the Lambeth Conference.

The Only Way

The avowed object of the bishops in dealing with this whole question, marriage, sex, and contraceptives, was to stem the tide of the growing laxity in these matters and "to give guidance to troubled consciences" and "to many who are sorely perplexed as to the legitimacy of the use" (of contraceptives). I voted against this Resolution and against the Report of this Committee being even "received" by the Conference and published, because I was convinced, as I still am, that neither would attain the avowed object of the bishops. Their approval of contraceptives, it is true, is hedged round by "ifs" and "ands" and "buts," and safeguards and conditions, but so far as the "world" is concerned it will not notice, or it will forget, or will not understand the safeguards and conditions, but it will certainly remember the approval. Its "conscience," so far as it exists, will be still more at rest. As for "the faithful in Christ Jesus" and the "troubled consciences," they will be still at a loss to know what the bishops really meant, and will still have to settle this question for themselves. Of those who have been gallantly fighting in their refusal to use these things, the weaker will be encouraged to give up the struggle. Others will still fight on to maintain what they believe is the Christian standard, but greatly disheartened. Of course I voted against this Resolution.

And what will be its effect upon the unmarried? Is it the least likely that those who at present are indulging in illicit sexual intercourse with contraceptives, and who have read Resolution 15, will be moved to change their ways by reading Resolution 18, which affirms that "sexual intercourse between persons not legally married is a grievous sin," and that "the use of contraceptives does not remove that sin"? Everybody knows that already, except apparently "the New Moralists," whose "New Philosophy of Sex," with its "companionate marriage," etc., is entirely dependent on the use of contraceptives. It is true, of course, that to the Christian "contraceptives do not remove the sin" of fornication, but they do remove many of the possible inconveniences of the practice, and also the perfectly legitimate "fear" (if they work, which is not always the case) of doing a grave injustice to a "husbandless" mother and a "fatherless" child.

I am therefore entirely convinced, and shall do my best to convince others, that the only reasonable, the only true, and the only Christian line, to take about this question is to uphold the age-long tradition that all contraception is against the law of God and therefore unnatural and wrong; that no sexual intercourse is legitimate without the will on the part of those who indulge in it, to cooperate fully with God's whole plan in marriage, as a lifelong union between one man and one woman, and to shoulder gallantly the responsibilities attaching to married life in the sacrifices entailed by the upbringing of children within a Christian home. Finally, to bear witness to our faith that there are not and never can be, for those who will give themselves to Christ, any hard cases too hard for the power of the Holy Spirit to cope with, for "His strength is sufficient for all human needs."

No priest or bishop who has been in close and intimate touch with the lives of his fellow-men during a varied ministry of some thirty-five years can be unaware of the tremendous difficulties which the whole sex problem presents, both within or outside the married state. He must know better than most people how hard many hard cases are. Nobody, unless he possessed a heart of stone, could help being tempted again and again, from sheer pity, to find some easy way out. But experience has shown that for a Christian there are no "short cuts," though there are many "broad roads"; that the Cross is a fact, and that the Cross always hurts, but, thank God, hurts to heal, if it is faced gallantly and without complaint, in company with Him who first bore it for us. For the Cross is a "yoke," and when we honestly try to get our shoulders under one of its arms we find that Somebody Else has got His shoulder under the other, and is taking the real weight on Himself, so that in fellowship with Christ, "His yoke becomes easy and His burden light."

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